Mark Evans is a Fractional CMO for fast-growing B2B and SaaS companies and the host of the Marketing Spark podcast. But behind that fancy title, Mark is a storyteller.
As marketers, we are often reminded of the value of stories. But how do you tell a story in a way that makes a lasting impact?
As a guest on our Wynter Games series, Mark spelled out the power of storytelling - and how you can harness it.
The psychology of stories
Did you know that stories are 22x more memorable than facts?
After an office happy hour, you probably don’t remember that the new colleague you met at the end of the evening visited five cities in Asia in 1993. But you’ll probably remember the story he told about an elephant that squirted him with a trunkful of river water.
You’ve probably also heard the urban legend that humans have a shorter attention span than a goldfish: approximately seven seconds.
Whether that’s fact or fiction, there is no denying the importance of stories.
Mark says that if you’re not storytelling right now, it’s typically because you either don’t know how, or you have competing marketing priorities.
“If that's the case, you better change your mindset,” said Mark. “We all have our different reasons for marketing in different ways. You want to do marketing, and that's okay, but storytelling matters.”
The marketing value of stories
Mark made a compelling case for mastering storytelling. His argument came down to three main reasons for why storytelling wins in the modern world - now more than ever before.
There’s too much competition.
“No matter how unique your product, no matter how different, even if it's the best thing since sliced bread, you have dozens if not hundreds of competitors,” said Mark. Further, those competitors often look just like you, and advertise similar features, benefits, and prices. Storytelling can be the secret ingredient for how you differentiate your brand.
There's too much noise.
Mark said that according to researchers, “the average person sees, reads, or hears more than a hundred thousand words a day. Email, social media, content marketing, direct mail, billboards, advertising, TV - the list goes on and on.”
Stories can be a refreshing way to break through the noise and connect with your target audience.
There are fewer options to connect.
With COVID-19, many B2B companies lost a valuable marketing channel: conferences. “The dirty little secret of conferences for B2B companies was that that's where most of their marketing success actually happened,” Mark said. “A lot of companies allocated big chunks of their marketing budgets so that they go to events to engage and meet prospects and customers. But when conferences disappeared, a lot of marketing that was mediocre was suddenly thrust into the spotlight because you didn't have conferences to provide all that firepower.”
With conferences and other in-person marketing channels on hold for the foreseeable future, masterful storytelling can help begin to fill that void.
The storytelling formula
Mark described five primary steps that comprise the formula for a successful story. Below, we’ll walk briefly through each one.
Step #1: identify the hero.
The hero of your story is the star of your show. They are the entity that the viewer will follow through the journey. The hero can take many different forms, and can appear as:
- Your customer
- Your employee
- Your partner
- Your investor
- Your product
Step #2: put the hero’s, problems, pains, and dreams into the spotlight.
The goal of the step is to have your audience develop empathy with your hero. You want to show what your hero is trying to accomplish, and the challenges they are facing.
This connection will enable you to build trust, and ultimately to position yourself as a resource who is going to help them.
Step #3: the guide who can lead them to the promised land.
This is the person who's going to show them the way. The guide will help the hero address what they want to achieve.
This is a concept that’s been made popular by Donald Miller, who runs the consulting company StoryBrand. Mark recommends his books as a valuable read for marketers looking to hone their storytelling skills.
Step #4: introduce the solution to their challenges.
When you introduce the solution, your goal is to educate, enlighten, encourage, or motivate. Your goal is not to overtly sell anything.
Here, you are trying to make people think that this could be the possible solution to their problems. This might be something that will help them get to where they want to go.
Step #5: show how they can live happily ever after.
This step is known as the resolution. This is where your story gets wrapped up with a nice little bow. It brings the story full circle and provides a memorable end to the hero’s journey.
The five steps above are the basic framework for crafting a successful story. But just as important as these five steps is the healthy dose of drama, conflict, and tension that underpin them.
The best stories leave you in suspense
A story doesn’t come off well when it reads like a math formula. There has to be a sense of suspense woven in.
As children, we all remember the delicious sensation of being on the edge of our seat. Mark brought up the example of reading Little Red Riding Hood for the first time.
Would Little Red Riding Hood make it to her grandmother’s house? Would the woodcutter arrive on time to save the day?
Emotion is the key to a well-told story. And Mark reminded us that people make decisions based on emotions, not logic.
As a concrete example, Mark had us watch a Mercedes-Benz television advertisement. We’ll quickly recap the ad here, and how Mark tied it to the storytelling journey.
The first scene features a young boy, who we identify as the hero of the story.
In the next scene, we are introduced to the problem. The boy is at home during a snowstorm, and wants his dad to drive him somewhere. Tension rises, as his father hesitates to drive anywhere in the heavy snow.
Next, the hero's mother comes to his rescue and urges the father to drive the boy to his destination. The solution to the problem is identified as a Mercedes SUV, which can navigate through the storm.
“There's a sense of anticipation. There's drama. There's some tension involved,” said Mark. “Will they get through the snowstorm to where they want to go? We still don't know.”
Finally, they arrive at a movie theatre. The tension escalates, because no one is there. The boy is disappointed.
Then, we see another Mercedez pull into the parking lot. It’s the girl who is the boy’s date, and we see them head into the theatre as the “happily-ever-after.”
Stories can go off-script
While we’ve outlined the basic five-step storytelling arc, Mark noted that there are infinite approaches to telling a story well.
Stories can be cool, fun, creative, or interesting. They can educate, encourage, or enlighten. But the bottom line is that they entertain.
They do something special to engage people, move them forward in a way that builds affinity and trust with your product.
For instance, it’s possible to create engaging stories around traditionally “boring” products. Take General Electric, which makes heavy-duty industrial equipment. They actually put out a very compelling Instagram story about gas turbines.
“I'm not interested in gas turbines. And I don't think anybody else is!” Mark said. “But this is a story that drives brand awareness, that drives brand affinity. It shows me behind the scenes of what General Electric does.”
Equally important is the fact that stories can be as long and structured as the Mercedez-Benz commercial - or as short as a one-line social media post.
A good example was what Oreo did at the 2013 Superbowl. When the lights went out due to a power failure, there was a lot of panic. No one knew whether the game was going to go on.
“Oreo took advantage of some very creative and very agile marketing to tell a simple story about what you could do with an Oreo in the dark,” said Mark. “And that was this story of the Superbowl. Forget about the game itself - Oreo stole the show.”
What Oreo accomplished may seem like a feat of marketing engineering. But in fact, it was just a simple yet effective social media post that the Oreo team came up with in less than 10 minutes.
The bottom line is that you have creative license when creating stories for your brand. But whatever you do needs to entertain the audience. You need to captivate people and get their attention.
Storytelling in summary
In parting, we’ll leave you with a few of Mark’s final thoughts about storytelling.
Storytelling is marketing with a different lens.
Traditional marketing often overtly positions your product as the solution to a problem. But stories are more subtle. “Storytelling is really about identifying opportunities where you can find a hero. And then you can tell the story from their perspective, whether it's about their problems or their aspirations or their challenges, or even the product,” said Mark.
While it requires looking at the world in a different way, the good news is that stories are all around you. “There is no lack of stories out there,” said Mark. “It's just a matter of capturing all of them and then figuring out which one resonates the best.”
Storytelling is not about you; it's about them.
Newsflash: consumers are selfish and self-absorbed. It should come as no surprise that people care first and foremost about themselves. So when setting forth your product’s features and benefits, focus on how it helps them.
Don’t start by telling what the product is, or how it works. Save that for later. The first step is to set the scene, not sell.
Stories are what the audience wants to hear, not the stories that you want to tell. When you're thinking about storytelling, you have to ask yourself: is this going to be interesting to the audience?
Are they going to be curious about this story? Is it going to captivate them? Or is it simply us trying to market our product or service?
Harnessing the magic of storytelling has never been more important. Thanks to Mark’s insights, we hope that it’s also never been more approachable.
Watch Mark talk about storytelling here.